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This question came to me thinking about the notion of computation. I was thinking whether we can extend the notion of tape symbol from something that can be printed on a block of space, to something that is just conceivable and recallable. In that way we might conclude that there are more than countably many Turing recognizable languages which might have unexpected results.

So my question is that are there conceivable and recallable thoughts which cannot be expressed in the words of a language?

Edits I didn't assume an exact definition of a thought, and that's not of interest for this question. Since this was brought up I'd better restate my question in another way: Is there a definition of 'thought' with which there would exist recallable thoughts that cannot be stated in a language?

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    Depends on what you define "thoughts" to be. While "my tummy hurts" is expressed in language, the realization that your tummy hurts is at least recallable (not sure what you mean by "conceivable"). Is it a thought or a mere sensation?
    – armand
    Nov 17, 2021 at 22:42
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    A lot of DMT users claim to have ineffable visions of ultimate, absolute truth, which they recall having, while being incapable of meaningfully expressing these visions otherwise (except they somehow just happen to know it was the ultimate, absolute truth that they saw; how convenient...). Nov 17, 2021 at 23:06
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    There are certainly thoughts that a particular person (or perhaps even any person) at a particular time cannot put into words because their language at that time lacks expressive means to do it. The requisite concepts may not be developed yet, but some sort of imagery, music, or even mere dispositions may capture them in a sense. A stronger question is whether there are thoughts that cannot be conceptualized in principle. Qualia or knowledge-how might be examples of non-propositional "thoughts", but their status as such is controversial.
    – Conifold
    Nov 18, 2021 at 0:05
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    Several schools of thought reject conceptual thinking as fundamental & so words, inc Daoism & Buddhism. See: 'Philosophical traditions that reject symbolic reasoning' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/82360/… You should consider how language is an emergent network property, as per Private Language arg 'How does the Chinese Room Argument handle the pile of sand paradox?' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/86813/…
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 18, 2021 at 9:40
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    You can't really escape the question of what constitutes thought if you're asking to draw inferences about it. Unavoidably, it depends on your theory of thought.
    – J D
    Nov 18, 2021 at 16:28

3 Answers 3

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There is no difference between a thought we know how to express in words and one we don't. There is a difference, but it is not between the thoughts.

We use words to refer not to actual things in the world, but to what we have in mind, whether imaginary or real, so we can agree on the use of a word as long as we can make sure what it is we are all talking about.

This is easy when we talk about material objects. We just have to point them out and speak out the words we use. It is much more difficult when we talk about imaginary things, but the assumption should be that we can figure out that we are talking about the same thing whenever we are at least broadly talking about the same thing, even though it may be imaginary.

It seems reasonable to assume for example that people can get to agree on the word "God" even though no one can point out what the word "God" is used to refer to. This is probably a very approximate process but the crucial point seems to be that people feel satisfied that they are talking about the same thing, even if this is not necessarily entirely the case. After all, there is considerable room for interpretation whenever anyone use the word "God".

So there is in principle no difficulty expressing our thoughts essentially because we can make up new words to talk about them. The difficulty starts with making other people understand what it is we are talking about. This process can only be successful if the other person is able to have broadly the same thought as we do, whatever the reason for that. Imaginary things will inevitably require more explanations. For example, mathematical thinking requires years of training and not everybody will understand all mathematical thoughts.

There are thoughts that are so elusive and vague that we are not able to recognise if ever we have them on different occasions, and I doubt that anyone would try to describe a thought that is not recurrent and recognised as such. If it is recurrent, it is also more likely that other people will experience similar thoughts, in which case they may be able to understand someone else talking about them. But thoughts that are elusive and vague probably remain unspoken for lack of being recognised by the subject.

It is also unlikely that we would have thoughts wholly unrelated to anything else we are able to think about, except perhaps whenever we experience situations that are effectively entirely new to us, be it in the real world or inside our head, so to speak. Some mental illnesses may give rise to all sorts of very strange thoughts that the subject might be unable to articulate. However, people with the same illness, left to their own devices, would over time probably evolve the common vocabulary necessary to talk about thoughts that are common to them.

The difficulty is in having the thought. Words do not describe things in the sense that a painting does. A word is only a label, a proxy to refer to an idea or a thought. We can only understand each other when we share similar ideas. Once we share some idea, it is relative easy to come up with the vocabulary necessary to talk about it. Thus, as long as we can come up with a thought, one whose recurrence we are able to recognise, it is likely that we should be able to talk about it, at least in principle.

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  • "there is in principle no difficulty expressing our thoughts essentially because we can make up new words to talk about them" Why? This assumes that the number of possible thoughts are either finite or countable (as large as the cardinality of natural numbers). But maybe we have already had uncountably many thoughts in our mind and therefore some of the thoughts cannot be expressed in words.
    – Kooranifar
    Nov 21, 2021 at 15:45
  • @Kooranifar 1. "maybe we have already had uncountably many thoughts" Life is short, yes? Well, it seems to be because we cannot have infinitely many thoughts in any finite period of time. Maybe your definition of "thought" is different? - 2. "This assumes that the number of possible thoughts (...)" My answer is about thoughts we actually have. If we assume infinitely many thoughts in one minute then it is trivial and uninteresting that we cannot articulate them. But you said "conceivable and recallable thoughts". Those are inevitably in a finite number because we are finite beings. Nov 21, 2021 at 17:56
  • As I said I didn't assume a specific definition of thought, I agree that with yours (i.e. some event that can occur at most finitely many times in a unit of time, say a minute) we could achieve finitely many. Also I'm not interested in assuming infinitely many thoughts in one minute; I wanted to know if we are about to choose a thought to think about for the next one minute, do we have finitely many options or infinitely many one? This is what I meant by asking about existence of thoughts, and was not regarding their actual occurrence.
    – Kooranifar
    Nov 21, 2021 at 21:41
  • If my explanations of the question in previous comment were not clear in my post, I will edit my question if you let me know.
    – Kooranifar
    Nov 21, 2021 at 21:50
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    I see. Thank you for the follow-up discussion.
    – Kooranifar
    Nov 22, 2021 at 17:12
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Yes, there are thoughts that cannot be put into words. Put another way, there are more thoughts than words.

This depends, as everyone has been quick to point out, on the definition of "thoughts." But let's say they include not only formal concepts and ideas, but experiences, combinations of perceptions, brain states, particularities, and degraded ideas that are less than "clear and distinct."

The function of "words" is precisely to reduce and encapsulate many such "thoughts," which are otherwise wholly particular and incommunicable. Thus, each single word must cover myriad "thoughts" in the streaming particularities of consciousness--into which we cannot step twice.

Now, there may be an infinite number of possible words. But they track an even larger infinity of corresponding thoughts, to follow Cantor. Some evidence of this is found in the common notion that certain words cannot be "clearly translated" into other languages.

Further evidence is seen in the simple growth of languages as new words are added, presumably corresponding to and reducing new experiences. (Though some post-structuralists might argue the reverse, that the new words come first, engendering new experiences. Both can be the case.)

In any case, I don't think it is terribly controversial to consider words a kind of reduction/abstraction of thoughts and experiences, encapsulating and mediating perhaps infinitely many different individual "thoughts." This would imply more thoughts than words, more experiences than slots to fit them into.

So even if any given thought can be matched up to a word, there is no perfect correspondence, and the totality of "thoughts" could never be reduced meaningfully, one-to-one, to a totality of words. Thus we have remaindered thoughts--whereof we cannot speak.

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Thinking from the perspective of the theories of image schema combined with embodied construction grammar, any thoughts pertaining to conceptual or perceptual phenomena for which no underlying image schemas exist could potentially pose problems. Image schemas are learned young, often before language.

In contemporary cognitive linguistics, an image schema is considered an embodied prelinguistic structure of experience that motivates conceptual metaphor mappings. Learned in early infancy they are often described as spatiotemporal relationships that enable actions and describe characteristics of the environment.

According to construction grammar, language is made of constructions, or abstract objects (complex schemas) with form and content. Each construction has an emergent meaning stemming from a set of simpler schemas (content) combined in a particular form. Both image schemas and construction grammar are learned in a hierarchical fashion, starting with the simplest concepts and building from there. That is, more abstract image schemas rely on earlier, more concrete image schemas, and the same pattern goes for constructions. Moreover, according to embodied construction grammar, basic linguistic meaning ultimately comes back to image schemas.

[Construction grammar] posits that there are linguistic patterns at every level of generality and specificity: from individual words, to partially filled constructions (e.g. drive X crazy), to fully abstract rules (e.g. subject–auxiliary inversion). All of these patterns are recognized as constructions. [...] The semantic meaning of a grammatical construction is made up of conceptual structures postulated in cognitive semantics: image-schemas, frames, conceptual metaphors, conceptual metonymies, prototypes of various kinds, mental spaces, and bindings across these (called "blends"). [...] Embodied construction grammar (ECG) [...] [claims] that the content of all linguistic signs involves mental simulations and is ultimately dependent on basic image schemas [...]

Starting from this position, we might surmise that a mental experience encountered after early childhood, or otherwise which society never discussed, could lack the fundamental image schemas upon which language is built. Without a basis, one may find a poverty or absence of language to describe the experience. Depending on one's creativity, an analogy may be the closest fit. Assuming that poets are good with analogy, perhaps they would be apt in describing mentally novel experiences.

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